The effect of spatial frequency information and visual similarity in threat detection

Xiaoqing Gao, Vanessa LoBue, Jennifer Irving, Teresa Harvey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In the current research, we sought to examine the role of spatial frequency on the detection of threat using a speeded visual search paradigm. Participants searched for threat-relevant (snakes or spiders) or non-threat-relevant (frogs or cockroaches) targets in an array of neutral (flowers or mushrooms) distracters, and we measured search performance with images filtered to contain different levels (high and low) of spatial frequency information. The results replicate previous work demonstrating more rapid detection of threatening versus non-threatening stimuli [e.g. LoBue, V. & DeLoache, J. S. (2008). Detecting the snake in the grass: Attention to fear-relevant stimuli by adults and young children. Psychological Science, 19, 284–289. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02081.x]. Most importantly, the results suggest that low spatial frequency or relatively coarse levels of visual information is sufficient for the rapid and accurate detection of threatening stimuli. Furthermore, the results also suggest that visual similarity between the stimuli used in the search tasks plays a significant role in speeded detection. The results are discussed in terms of the theoretical implications for the rapid detection of threat and methodological implications for properly accounting for similarity between the stimuli in visual search studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)912-922
Number of pages11
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 4 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


  • Threat detection
  • spatial frequency
  • visual search
  • visual similarity

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